Paul Coetser, co-editor and Devil’s Advocate
We’re blogging our way through Brian Neumann’s book The White Elephant in Seventh-day Adventism. We are now at Chapter 2, which has the title “In Vision. Applying the Standard — part: one” (pp. 59-68.)
Neumann states up-front in chapter two that: “Nowhere in the Bible does God say that some physical phenomena, manifested by the prophet when in vision, should be used to prove if a prophet is true or false” (p.60).
He shows, I think convincingly, how attempts to construe Biblical accounts of prophets in vision into a checklist of physical criteria that can be applied to check a prophet’s authenticity does not constitute conclusive evidence.
In developing his argument, Neumann submits three accounts from different historical sources of Ellen White’s visions and shows how these accounts were employed by early Seventh-day Adventists to “prove” Ellen White’s authenticity as a prophet (p.62-65).
He, however, also quotes a contradictory statement by Arthur G. Daniels (General Conference President), who said at a 1919 Conference on the Spirit of Prophecy:
Now with reference to the evidences [physical signs]: I differ with some of the brethren who have put together proofs of evidences of the genuineness of this gift, in this respect, — I believe that the strongest proof is found in the fruits of this gift to the church, not in physical and outward demonstrations…. 1
Included in the quote by Daniels, is his seeming uncertainty about the truthfulness of the stories about Ellen White’s superhuman strength, such as holding the family Bible, while in vision.
Here is a fun fact: In 1906 C.C. Chrisler conducted an interview with Ellen White where she recalled stories from the early days of the Adventist movement. In a recollection she tells how she once exposed the deceit of a certain fanatical woman. She says:
One woman — she was holy, tall, dignified, but she was one of the fanatical ones — would go right into a vision and tell them what they must do. They sent for me and I came up. Said I, ‘What is it?’ They said what she was doing. She was in vision, and she said they must do so and so. The poor woman did not know what spirit she was of. ‘But, Sister Howland,’ said I, as though I was whispering, ‘get a pitcher of cold water, good cold water, and throw it right in her face; that will bring her out of it the quickest of anything you can do.’ She started to get the water, but before she got there, [the woman] had come out. She was deceiving them in this way. 2
I can imagine the glint in the 76 year old Ellen White’s eyes as she remembered that story. Perhaps we should add throwing a pitcher of cold water into the face, as one of the tests for a Biblical prophet!…
The societal and religious context in which the advent movement originated
But on a more serious note. I think Ellen White’s recollection in this interview highlights something about the context in which Ellen White’s visions took place, particularly in the early years. Seventh-day Adventists today are a pretty restrained lot. There is little that is charismatic, exuberant, or ecstatic about our worship practices today. Not so in the early days of the Adventist movement.
The Adventist movement in the 1840’s was part of a bigger movement that swept over America at the time in which there was great exuberance, ecstasy, emotional meetings, people falling around chaotically, uttering cries, groans, and shouts, including visions and prophecy.
Early Adventists, including the youthful Ellen Harmon (she married in 1846), had to navigate their way through this landscape buzzing with new experiences and ideas, including the doctrinal minefields that would face any group that had just thrown out many of the standard Christian traditions and denominational allegiances.
There were also many inside and outside the movement who were critical of the “movement” in general, and of Ellen White specifically.3
The fact that Ellen White emerged from this period and social environment as one who was regarded as a leader with spiritual authority says something about her character and the quality of her spiritual leadership. In the same interview referenced above, she shared how others were sometimes puzzled about how she could have an influence over them, whereas they could never influence her to receive and accept their testimonies.
In hindsight, we know today that the pioneers of this new movement did not always get things quite right. This is evident from the theological and interpersonal controversies that erupted over the years. Early Adventism was in a state of development. 4 My feeling is therefore that it would not be surprising if the pioneers got other aspects of the movement’s witness and apologetics – such as placing undue emphasis on physical signs – wrong as well.
Development of Ellen White’s visionary experiences
A second observation, highlighted (amongst others) by Ronald Graybill, is that Ellen White’s ecstatic visionary experiences lasted from 1844 to 1870 and reduced in frequency over this period in tandem with the decline of other forms of enthusiastic worship. The evidence and the stories recounted to support the Biblical nature of these phenomena came from this early time.
After 1870, “vivid dreams, often called ‘visions of the night,’ became her main revelatory experience.”5 Thus at least 45 years of her ministry (1870 -1915) did not involve any of these “public daytime” visions. The bulk of her writings did not rely on visionary experiences at all.
This underscores for me that it is probably wise to suspend judgement a little in favour of developing a holistic picture of Ellen White’s lifelong ministry and impact.
Development of how we use and evaluate historical evidence
A final observation is that the way that we use and evaluate evidence also changed and developed over time. Brian mentions in his book that John Loughborough, a staunch supporter of Ellen White, wrote a book in 1892 6 which outlined the history of the early Adventist movement. Historiography has progressed significantly since then. Today there are at least some who regard Loughborough more as a “hagiographer than historian…” He is said to have “often proved unreliable in the latter role.”7.
We could probably take a leaf out of the book of dispassionate historians, who, when historical realities seem odd, or incoherent to them, regard it as a signal to be careful not to rush into a judgement and take a stance of an inquisitive investigator. Over years this approach has done much to advance our understanding of the time. Certainly, there is room for hard questions. There might however be more nuance in the picture that emerges than we initially would imagine.
The way forward with Ellen White
As reflected in the previous blog, I’d say that we have at least two options of what to do with all of the above.
- If we chose to apply a narrow set of standards of what constitutes the ultimate truth about Ellen White’s authority or authenticity, we might classify Ellen White as a false prophet. Or,
- we can take a broader view, and look at the overall picture of a “prophet” who had a defining impact on the development of a world-wide movement that seeks to interpret the Bible faithfully.
Within the framework of the second option it is possible to admit that the movement – and the prophet’s initial approaches were flawed in some ways and no longer cuts mustard. This admission, however, does not imply a total rejection of the movement and its prophet.
From the platform of such an admission we can develop, and transform our explanations of historical phenomena into something that is more mature and authentic for the time that we live in.
Weiers, it is early days and there are still a few hundred pages of Brian’s research that must be studied and digested. But it seems to me that your arguments are moving in the direction whereby one recognizes that Ellen White’s prophetic ministry has had a determining influence on the formation of the Adventist Church as it manifests itself today. Further, that her ministry is still relevant for modern day Adventists provided that one accommodates the fact that she is not the ‘saint on a pedestal’ that traditional Adventism had made her out to be.
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- 1919 Conference on the Spirit of Prophecy, quoted by Neumann. p.67.)
- Ms131a-1906 par.14 this story is also recollected in Ronald Graybill, “Prophet”, in Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, eds. Aamodt, Land, and Numbers. Oxford University Press. 2014. p.82.
- For an in-depth description of this time see Theodore N. Levterov, The development of the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of Ellen G. White’s prophetic gift, 1844-1889. Doctoral Dissertation, Andrews University. 2011. Various articles in Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet referenced earlier also describes the shouting Methodism in which Ellen White and her family was steeped.
- George Knight chronicles some of the highlights of the theological developments of this time in A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs, Review and Herald. 2000.
- Ronald Graybill, “Prophet.” p.81.
- Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists
- Ronald Graybill, “Prophet.” p. 83